Chris Smither – Transcendental Blues
The urge for transcendence. I’ve written about it in these pages before — any number of times. The theme runs through my writing like a nervous tic, or at least through the best of it. In some ways it’s all I ever write about, and I suspect it’s the reason that I write at all — and, for that matter, why others do, or why they draw, paint, act, sculpt, dance or make music.
The idea of such an urge sounds deadly earnest, I know, and it is — literally. It’s an impulse — a deep gnawing — born of our awareness of our mortality and, with it, our hunger to participate in that which transcends and can ground us. A hunger for something more, for something infinitely greater than what we, in and of ourselves, can become.
Many view the object of this striving in theological terms — as God. But the urge for transcendence is hardly the province of those who subscribe to some religious faith or tradition. The urge to connect, be it with a higher power or to a state of higher consciousness, is stitched into the fabric of our beings. It’s what makes us human.
Chris Smither has witnessed to this urge for the better part of four decades. A singer, songwriter and guitarist of singular gifts and sensitivities, he titled one of his early meditations on existence and its discontents Homunculus. The term refers to a small or diminutive person, but in Smither’s expansive hands it speaks to humanity’s place in the universe. Homunculus is also the name under which he publishes his blues-based originals, many of which betray a mystical/existential bent and give voice to a particularly earthbound grasp of transcendence.
“It takes a sense of balance on this tiny little ball, with a tiny mind still big enough to think about it all,” Smither sings with the air of a beneficent trickster on his forthcoming album, Train Home (due July 29 on HighTone). To the haunting gypsy blues of the title track he avers, “I don’t think I see much of anything for me, in visions of the past or the ever after. Now is what can be, all the rest is wait and see, those prophets never hear that cosmic laughter.”
Tellingly, these lines — which Smither delivers with an affable rasp akin to that of his finger-style guitar hero Mississippi John Hurt — are buoyed by a sprightly mid-tempo rhythm. “The somewhat welcome news is there is no way to lose, because what isn’t real is genuine illusion,” he goes on, suggesting that the object of human striving, the transcendence that we seek, lies less in doing than in being.
On the page, Smither’s pronouncements might smack of the jive proffered by the “Mail Order Mystics” he first lampooned on his 1971 LP, Don’t It Drag On; performed live or on record, though, they’re anything but. Meant to be heard rather than read, his lyrics are linked inextricably to his vocals, and to how the words track through the melody, how they are shored up or subverted by the polyrhythmic ministrations of his percussive feet and guitar. All of it, right down to the grace and good humor with which Smither suffuses his performances, testifies to an approach to making music — indeed, to being in the world — born of his desire to lighten and elevate the human spirit.
It ain’t easy, as the title of the unjustly obscure LP he made for the Adelphi label in 1984 attests. Smither recorded the album while at the tail end of a decade-plus marriage to the bottle that could have killed him; getting well hasn’t so much lessened the weight of living as brought it into sharper focus. Contemplating that weight on “Outside In”, the second track on Train Home, he muses, “Did you ever stop to notice/It’s when you feel a little low/That the entire spinning universe descends to say hello/With a heavy-handed cheerfulness and a calculated smile/And says, ‘Carry me awhile’?”
Smither doesn’t take comfort from religion, social institutions, career security, or anything else that sees most people through uncertain or hard times. “The only thing that’s truly free is this little voice that’s telling me hold on,” he sings in “Hold On I” from his 1997 album Small Revelations. More in the tradition of existentialist singer-songwriters such as Dock Boggs, Robert Johnson, Hank Williams and the Otis Redding of “Dock Of The Bay”, he views perseverance in the absence of comfort as an act of self-affirmation, if not of transcendence, however fleeting that freedom ultimately may prove.
“Absolutely,” he says, when asked as much while sitting down to a hefty steak — “big piece of cow” — at the Merchant’s, an upscale eatery on Nashville’s Lower Broadway that used to be a soup kitchen frequented by down-and-out songwriters. “It’s also akin to an Eastern meditative tradition,” Smither continues, referring to his philosophical leanings. “You don’t deny that [suffering] is there, or even promise to do away with it. It’s more just the concentration of being it. It’s very existential.”
It’s redolent, as well, of what Ralph Ellison identified as “the blues impulse” in “The Shadow And The Act”. In that landmark essay, which originally appeared in The Reporter in 1949, Ellison described the blues as “the impulse to keep the painful details…of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy, but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.”
“I think that what Ellison was talking about there is very close to defining what I do,” Smither says when I mention the essay. Indeed, Smither’s records consistently blend the tragic and the comic with the aplomb that, say, Jimmie Rodgers did in “Blue Yodel No. 4”, his Depression-era ode to California’s not-so-golden “pastures of plenty.”
“The musical forms that I learned from were blues forms, but I’m not the son of a sharecropper in the Delta,” Smither says. “I’m the son of a college professor and my concerns are different, and I write about different things — things that, if any of my observations have value, are exactly [what Ellison was talking about]. They keep scratching at that scab, and the idea is to scratch at the scab everybody has and make ’em say, ‘I hurt that way too. I’ve been there. I’ve seen that and I’ve done that.'” Smither — who titled his 1970 debut I’m A Stranger, Too! (after a line from the record’s juking cover of Randy Newman’s “Have You See My Baby”) — has long identified with people who don’t feel at home in the world.
Born in Miami in 1944, Smither grew up in New Orleans, where his father taught romance languages at Tulane. His mother also worked at the university, in administration. He learned to play music under the tutelage of an uncle, first using a ukulele of his mother’s, then moving on to guitar.
Smither played in bands while in high school, during which time he also won first place at a local hootenanny. He didn’t experience his first musical epiphany, though, until he enrolled in the anthropology program at the University of the Americas in Mexico City and a friend played him a Lightnin’ Hopkins album. He heard Mississippi John Hurt on Vanguard’s Blues At Newport 1963 the following year, and his musical touchstones were in place. Yet it wasn’t until he was befriended by Eric Von Schmidt, the “blues guitar player” from the “green pastures of Harvard University” who Bob Dylan immortalized in the intro to “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down”, that Smither gave any thought to pursuing music full-time.